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Stars approach trade deadline with fascinating future

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As the smoke cleared for the Dallas Stars (after streaming from CEO Jim Lites’ ears), the team has been riding great goaltending and Tyler Seguin’s brilliant work to maintain the playoff spot they were struggling to keep before that on-the-record meltdown.

While strange things could always happen, the most likely question won’t be if the Stars can clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but rather if they wrestle the Central’s third seed back from the Blues, or settle for a wild-card spot.

This brings up inevitable questions, then: should the Stars be buyers at the trade deadline, and if so, to what extent?

Stars GM Jim Nill told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger that he’s interesting in adding offense, yet Nill also admits that other teams are going after the same thing, and that the market is pretty unpredictable right now.

“We’re very open to anything,” Nill said. “I think there are a lot of teams, because of how tight things are in the standings, they’re waiting to see where it all goes. So over the next two weeks that’s something we’re going to watch. We’re very open to making a hockey trade if it’s going to make us better. If we stay in the hunt the way we are, we’re open to adding to our team.”

The Stars are in an interesting situation as it comes to the 2018-19 season, but the future could be even brighter if they make the right moves. Let’s analyze the situation.

Keeping the goals down

One thing that jumps off the page is just how great the Stars’ goaltending has been. Between Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin (plus two effective Landon Bow games), Dallas’s team save percentage is at an outstanding .923, compared to a league average of .908.

Is that the sort of thing that’s sustainable, though? There are a few arguments in favor of that continuing, and some points against it, too.

While the Stars tend to lose certain possession battles according to measures such as Corsi/Fenwick, they’ve been the seventh-best team at preventing high-danger chances against at even-strength, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The track records of Bishop and Khudobin are a mix, too. On one hand, Bishop’s had some great seasons, even if you ding him a bit for playing behind strong Lightning teams; meanwhile, Khudobin’s had quite a few strong years where he arguably should have been a starter or at least a 1B goalie on certain teams. The negative side is that injury concerns hover over Bishop, who’s a big goalie and is currently dealing with an ailment. Both goalies are 32. That’s not ancient, but as the league gets faster and more skillful, that number is more concerning.

The Stars have enjoyed goaltending success with Norris-level defenseman John Klingberg out for a chunk of the season, and with Miro Heiskanen needing to gradually earn more and more trust from his coach. It stands to reason that those young defensemen might provide even greater value as time goes on.

Goalies are unpredictable, and it’s tough for any group to play at the Stars’ level. There’s a decent chance they’ll be above league-average down the stretch, though — just maybe not to such an extreme.

A lane is opening up

There was a time when both Jamie Benn ($5.25M from 2012-13 to 2016-17) and Tyler Seguin ($5.75M from 2013-14 through this season) were dirt-cheap for the Stars, yet Dallas frustratingly failed to capitalize on such opportunities.

You’d think that the Stars would be doomed starting in 2019-20 with Benn currently on a long-term deal at $9.5M and Seguin about to begin an extension that carries a $9.85M cap hit, but this team could be in a shockingly strong position if they play their cards right. And get a little luck.

Between Jason Spezza ($7.5M), Marc Methot ($4.9M), and Antti Niemi‘s buyout ($1.5M), the Stars have a ton of bad money set to expire after 2018-19, and stinkers like Martin Hanzal‘s $4.75M evaporate after 2019-20.

When you consider the Stars’ -1 goal differential and other telling stats, it’s probably not the wisest idea to go all-in this trade deadline. Instead, Dallas could be in a very interesting situation if they decide to let the chips fall, although they could be excused if they went after a cheaper rental.

We’ve seen Matt Duchene with an acoustic guitar, so maybe he’d get on cowboy boots and settle in Dallas? Does Artemi Panarin consider Dallas the sort of city he craves? What’s Mark Stone‘s opinion about BBQ?

Maybe the Stars could be proactive and creative in doing a sign-and-trade to land a Panarin or Stone now, using Spezza’s big contract or something else to make the money work now. But the point is that the Stars shouldn’t settle for short-term gains when they could swing for the fences mere months later.

Yes, there are some worries. The aging curve seems to be hitting Jamie Benn hard already at 29. Bishop’s deal might not age well, since it runs through 2022-23. Despite some concerns, there are scenarios where things work really well for Dallas.

***

With Seguin settled, Klingberg on a bargain $4.25M deal through 2021-22, and Heiskanen’s entry-level contract running through 2020-21, Dallas has space opening up soon, without having too many big-ticket players to retain for some time.

Nill might feel like he’s on the hot seat, but for the sake of this franchise, hopefully the Stars don’t mess things up with panic trades, because some Texas-sized opportunities could open up very soon.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

After CEO’s criticism, Seguin leading Stars’ turnaround

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The most noteworthy thing to happen to the Dallas Stars this season came at the end of December when team CEO Jim Lites loudly and profanely criticized his team’s two best players, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and pretty much blamed them entirely for the team’s underachieving.

In doing so he absolved general manager Jim Nill of any and all blame for the team’s shortcomings, and ignored the fact that even though Seguin and Benn were, at the time, having “down” years for their standards they were still by far the best and most productive players on the team.

It was an outrageous rant at the time, and it looks even more outrageous now that the Stars are sitting on fairly solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race thanks in large part to the play of their top players.

Specifically Seguin, who was one of the main targets in Lites’ off the rails rant.

Please do not misinterpret that point.

This is not a commentary about how the criticism inspired their top players to play better.

That is an insult to the motivation of professional athletes and ignores the fact that, again, they were already carrying the bulk of the weight for the Stars early in the season. It is also an insult to their ability as players. They were highly productive NHL players before that, and would have continued to be whether or not those comments were ever made.

Top-tier players have the hardest job, the highest expectations, and the most pressure. When they only fulfill even 90 percent of those expectations they are going to get criticized for underperforming, even if their 90 percent is better than most everyone else’s 100 percent. That is what was happening with the Stars through the end of December.

Seguin and Benn may not have been on their usual scoring pace, but they were still outperforming everyone else on the team by a substantial margin, while also outscoring and outplaying their opponents on a nightly basis. At the end of December when Lites sounded off, the Stars were outscoring teams 24-11 at 5-on-5 play when Seguin and Benn were on the ice together.

The Stars’ goal differential without either of them was a minus-14 (34-48).

Where was the problem again?

In the 18 games since then, Seguin, Benn, and Alexander Radulov have still been the most productive players on the team.

Even though Seguin and Benn have been split apart a lot more often and used on separate lines, they’ve still outscored opponents by an 8-4 margin when they are together at 5-on-5. Without either on the ice the goal differential suffers an eight-goal swing (minus-4 … four for, eight against) in the other direction.

Seguin alone has 22 points in the 18 games since then and has been absolutely dynamite on a line with Radulov and is now on pace to exceed his normal career average for points in a season.

Benn’s offense hasn’t quite picked up, but given how much time he’s spent away from Seguin and Radulov and has been asked to carry his own line that probably says more about the lack of depth the Stars have assembled than anything else. And that, again, falls back on the job of the GM for not assembling more talent around his two franchise players.

After all of that drama caused by the CEO the perception of the Stars immediately became that they were a dysfunctional mess of an organization and a sad-sack underachieving team going that was going nowhere instead of what they actually are. What they actually are is a team that has a handful of high-end, impact players in Seguin, Radulov, Benn, John Klingberg and an emerging star on the blue line in Miro Heiskanen that is probably actually overachieving this season.

The lesson to take away from all of this: Maybe don’t publicly put your best players on blast for ruining your season unless you have a damn good reason for it. Because those best players are probably going to be the ones that end up saving your season in the end.

If Lites was so eagerly willing to call Seguin and Benn “f—— horse s—” for what he thought was them underachieving earlier in the season, he should be just as willing to publicly thank them (and especially Seguin) for the added gate revenue his team will get for making the playoffs on their backs and saving all of their jobs.

More: Stars’ CEO ire should be directed at GM, not Seguin and Benn

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

The Buzzer: Seguin shines, JVR leads comeback, Kucherov dominates

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Three Stars

1. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars. After all of the drama earlier this season the Dallas Stars are looking like a playoff team, and not surprisingly, the two players that took the most heat from their CEO — Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn — are a big reason why. Seguin was dominant on Tuesday night in a 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers, figuring in on all three Stars goals, scoring two and assisting on another.

2. James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia Flyers. The Philadelphia Flyers probably deserved a better result on Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but things have a funny way of working out. It looked like they were headed for a second consecutive loss for most of the night until they stormed back for a third period rally against the Minnesota Wild. James van Riemsdyk scored two goals on the night, including the game-winner on the power play with less than five minutes to play in regulation. The playoffs still seem like a long shot, but they are definitely looking like a team that is on the right track.

3. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. The matchup of the night was in Tampa Bay where the best team in the Eastern Conference — the Tampa Bay Lightning — faced off against the best team in the Western Conference — The Calgary Flames. The Lightning showed that for as good as the Flames may be, they are still the top team in the NHL right now and cruised to a 6-3 win. Leading the way was Nikita Kucherov with a four-point night, which is already his fifth four-point game of the season. He is now up to a league-leading 88 points on the season.

Other Notable Performances From Tuesday

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets completely shut down the Washington Capitals in a 3-0 win. The Capitals managed just seven shots on goal through the first two periods and rarely seemed to be a threat to score. It was one of the Blue Jackets’ best showings of the season. Yes, just as they did after their previous win over the Capitals, there were some Evgeny Kuznetsov bird celebrations being done on the ice and also in the stands from fans.
  • The Boston Bruins received a four-point night from Brad Marchand in a big win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
  • The St. Louis Blues remained hot with their seventh win in a row to continue solidifying their playoff spot.
  • Mark Scheifele scored a pair of goals for the Winnipeg Jets in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers.
  • Teuvo Teravainen scored two goals for the Carolina Hurricanes in a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators as they kept pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Highlights of the Night

Jeff Skinner shows off his quick release to help lift the Buffalo Sabres to a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders.

Jimmy Howard boosted that trade value for the Detroit Red Wings by backstopping them to a 3-2 win over the Nashville Predators, thanks in large part to these saves right here.

Columbus’ win over the Capitals was not just about defense. It also had this slick passing play completed by Nick Foligno to help put the game away late in the third period.

 

Factoids

  • Vladimir Tarasenko‘s point streak is at a career-high nine games. [NHL PR]
  • No goalie in the NHL has more shutouts since the start of the 2016-17 season than Sergei Bobrovsky [NHL PR]
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs scored three power play goals in 1:49 on Tuesday night, the fifth-fastest sequence in franchise history. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 3, New York Islanders 1

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Washington capitals 0

Boston Bruins 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Dallas Stars 3, Florida Panthers 0

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Ottawa Senators 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Calgary Flames 3

Winnipeg Jets 4, New York Rangers 3

St. Louis Blues 8, New Jersey Devils 3

Detroit Red Wings 3, Nashville Predators 2

Philadelphia Flyers 5, Minnesota Wild 4

Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Colorado Avalanche 2

Arizona Coyotes 5, Vegas Golden Knights 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Will all this drama derail the Stars?

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The drama just never seems to stop for the Dallas Stars, although things do get kind of boring when this team actually tries to score goals. Worse yet, the Stars aren’t piling up PR losses alone any longer, as Dallas is now mired in a four-game losing streak.

The latest drama

Thursday presented the latest episode of “As the Stars Turn,” with embattled Stars coach Jim Montgomery deciding to bench Alexander Radulov – one of the team’s precious few actual scorers – for the remainder of the first period after an argument.

Such a tactic clearly isn’t about X’s and O’s, but instead about sending a message. If the message was sent, perhaps it was taken by carrier pigeon, as the results weren’t immediate. The Stars dropped a sad 2-1 loss to the lowly Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. During this span (all regulation losses), the Stars have scored a measly three goals. Total.

As Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News and others report, Radulov was able to cool off from his argument with Montgomery, eventually saying that his benching was “the right decision.”

Plenty of other people in the hockey world aren’t so easily convinced, and judging by Montgomery’s comments, even the coach might (deep down) have some second thoughts.

“Every decision we make is what’s best for the Dallas Stars, and at that moment, I thought that was best for the Dallas Stars,” Montgomery said. “When you’re struggling to score goals, it’s hard to do with a player of that caliber.”

In isolation, maybe Radulov did need to be reprimanded. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub. required) and others point out that Radulov had been drawing criticism for mental errors, including taking too-long shifts.

The questionable decisions and self-inflicted wounds really pile up when you look at the bigger picture, though. And that picture isn’t pretty.

Passing the buck

Ever since Stars CEO Jim Lites absolutely trashed Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn before the end of 2018, the Stars have suffered an almost unending run of embarrassing moments, and most of management’s wounds seem resoundingly self-inflicted.

After all, Lites went out of his way to throw Seguin and Benn under the bus, chiding bloggers to “write this!”

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of mistakes, and it doesn’t really seem like management is ever turning the discussion inward, at least on the record. Honestly, I almost picture Stars management transforming into Principal Skinner at some point.

Back in November, Montgomery discussed the Stars’ challenges in depth during a PHT Q&A, and it’s difficult to tell if anything’s changed for the better.

“Where we’ve got to get consistent is valuing our details that allow us to have success on nights when we don’t have legs. That’s where we have, I think, not embraced the process enough.”

All of the messaging seems to be about effort or “character.” Montgomery recently railed against a “culture of mediocrity,” but the thing is, that culture of mediocrity might just be plaguing the Stars’ front office more than the locker room.

This is a franchise that’s frequently failed when it comes to drafting, even whiffing on some crucial first-round picks. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn aren’t the ones who have bungled their way through a procession of three different head coaches in three seasons. GM Jim Nill and his staff were the ones who made mistakes like crossing their fingers that Martin Hanzal would somehow become a healthier player as he got older.

Maybe all of this bluster is an attempt to create a smokescreen around something that’s pretty obvious: management has failed to surround Benn, Seguin, Radulov, John Klingberg, and a few others with the proper supporting cast to succeed when they “don’t have their legs.”

Not hopeless yet

All things considered, it’s actually pretty amusing that the Stars would land in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began today.

In fact, the Stars aren’t so far off from the Colorado Avalanche, who currently rest as the third seed in the Central Division (27-18-8 for 50 points in 47 games played, 21 regulation/overtime wins).

Sure, the West’s wild card races are starting to feel like that year in the NFC where the Seattle Seahawks made the NFL playoffs with a 7-9 record, but if the Stars can stumble their way into a playoff berth, maybe they should start to take a more positive approach?

After all, it sure doesn’t seem like anyone’s having fun. From a per-game perspective, the Stars are the third weakest scoring team in the NHL, but they’ve been able to grind out wins thanks to fantastic goaltending and pretty solid special teams work.

Walking such a tight rope can lead to frayed nerves, yet failing to support the players doing the balancing act may throw everything out of whack.

A four-game losing streak, and a tiny margin for error to maintain a playoff spot, sends a message. While management seems to believe that they need to push and humiliate their players, maybe they should instead provide them support with an upgrade in trades — and a pat on the back?

After all, their competition might be just as much of a mess, but they seem to get that memo.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Pro Niemi; Odd night for the Blues

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Three Stars

1. Antti Niemi

After floundering with the Stars and flopping briefly with the Penguins, it sure seemed like last season would be Niemi’s last in the NHL.

Niemi even played two forgettable games for the Panthers team he frustrated tonight, so you can forgive his former teammates for wondering where this guy was. (Stars management might be doing that, too, if they’re not cursing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for losing to the Lightning.)

Niemi set a new career-high with 52 saves against Florida, with only Mike Hoffman‘s Forsberg-like goal beating him.

That performance stands taller than some other great goalie performances that should get at least honorable mentions. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a 35-save shutout against Benn and those Stars. Laurent Brossoit continued his brilliant work as Winnipeg’s gem of a backup, making 43 out of 44 stops. But Niemi’s 52 saves fell one short of tying a franchise record for the NHL’s most storied franchise. Seems fair to give him the top spot.

Not bad for a guy who legitimately seemed to be done last season.

2. Mika Zibanejad

As much as the Rangers’ opponents from Carolina rank as a team to watch at the trade deadline, the Rangers are no slouches themselves in sell mode.

It would be surprising to see Zibanejad go in such a liquidation, at least if the Rangers don’t want this to be a lengthy rebuild. He’s a prime-age scorer, with Tuesday’s two goals and two assists pushing his season total to an impressive 41 points. Zibanejad only had 47 points all of last season, and 2015-16’s 51 represent a career-high, so he could really set a new bar for himself. The talent’s seemingly always been there, so it’s pretty exciting to see such growth, and it must be painful to compare his work to that of trade partner Derick Brassard.

Mats Zuccarello collected three assists in this one as well, including a truly brilliant one to set up one of Z’s goals. Zuccarello now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game run.

The Rangers really dominate the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden, apparently.

3. Viktor Arvidsson

Arvidsson was one of two players to collect a hat trick on “National Hat Day,” with Tomas Hertl being the other. Arvidsson gets the nod for two reasons: 1) one of Hertl’s three goals included an empty-netter and 2) Arvidsson managed a GWG in his efforts.

(Joe Thornton scored the game-winner in what was his 1,000th game with the Sharks.)

Some of those Arvidsson goals included some great moments from his teammates, much like Zibanejad was boosted by Zuccarello. You can see a great outlet pass from Mattias Ekholm and a falling helper from Ryan Johansen in the highlights of Nashville’s one-sided win against Washington.

Strange, tough night for St. Louis

The Blues lost in overtime to the Islanders, with Jordan Binnington suffering his first defeat. But that wasn’t what made this an unusual night.

Early in the game, Oskar Sundqvist continued his unlucky 2018-19 by losing his edge and falling into an on-ice official, needing help off of the ice. Luckily, he would come back later in the game.

It wasn’t the only unusual reaction between a Blues player and someone other than an Islanders player, as a trainer helped a struggling Zach Sanford to the bench:

Here’s hoping Sanford ends up OK. David Perron extended his point streak to 12 games, but that’s about where the good news ended for St. Louis on Tuesday.

One more great highlight

Click here for that Hoffman goal. It was pretty ridiculous.

Also ridiculous: Hertl’s effort on this tally. The Czech winger grew up idolizing Jaromir Jagr, so it must have felt great to emulate number 68 in overpowering Evgeni Malkin on his way to this tremendous goal:

Apparently Hertl’s hat-trick goal pushed him to 100 career tallies. So not a bad consolation prize for Hertl.

Factoids

Another sign that, yes, scoring is way up this season.

The Islanders are the first team since the 2011-12 Flyers to have eight players score at least 10+ goals through 45 games.

PHT’s Scott Billeck notes that Laurent Brossoit’s 26 saves in the second period set a new Jets franchise record for saves in a single period. So, yeah, Brossoit has a strong argument for a three stars nod, along with quite a few others from a busy Tuesday.

Scores

NYI 2 – STL 1 (OT)
NYR 6 – CAR 2
CBJ 4 – NJD 1
MTL 5 – FLA 1
DET 3 – ANA 1
NSH 7 – WSH 2
MIN 3 – LAK 2 (SO)
WPG 4 – VGK 1
TBL 2 – DAL 0
SJS 5 – PIT 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.